Former Minister: 'Lee Kuan Yew was worth my loyalty and support'

Former Minister: 'Lee Kuan Yew was worth my loyalty and support'
LAST RESPECTS: Former minister of social affairs Othman Wok (second from left) being helped by family members and Ms Ho Ching (far left) at the private family wake for Mr Lee Kuan Yew on Monday.

When they first met in 1951, journalist Othman Wok was immediately drawn to the young lawyer named Lee Kuan Yew.

"I was then the chief reporter with Utusan Melayu, the Malay national newspaper.

"Mr Lee had walked into the office together with the president of the Singapore Post and Telegraph Uniformed Staff Union, Mr P. Govindasamy," Mr Othman, 88, recalled.

Mr Lee, who was representing the union, had an air of confidence about him, said Mr Othman, and heads turned when he strode into the room.

The postmen were on strike then and their demand for better salaries and better working conditions had been rejected by the management.

"It was a statement and the whole postal service stopped for a couple of days and there were no letters.

"So they decided to go to arbitration and the union hired Kuan Yew to represent them in arbitration.

"I also noticed that he hardly ever charged the unions for his work," Mr Othman told The New Paper in an interview at his home in Siglap.

"He won. So he came to tell us, the newspaper people, the result of that arbitration," said Mr Othman, who would later become the Minister of Social Affairs from 1963 to 1977.

"He was very charismatic. I found him friendly and after that, we straight-away became friends."

BEYOND RACE

"I can say that our friendship, his and mine, went beyond race, language or religion.

"We became very close and we would always meet over a meal.

"When we got to know each other better, I found him to be brilliant. He could see far forward and could plan things way ahead.

"I always respected him as a leader. He had very good knowledge of current affairs, not only locally but internationally, and I looked up to him.

"I always looked up to him for his capacity to lead the party as well as get the people, the party members to support him.

"So when the PAP was formed in November 1954, I joined it. Kuan Yew appointed me to be a member of the PAP Malay Affairs Bureau.

"That time, he was not well-versed in Malay. So whenever he wanted to make a speech in Malay, he would phone me and say, 'Come to the house. Bring your typewriter.'

"I remember it was at the white verandah that he would ask me to translate his English speeches to Malay. Sometimes, when he needed to speak to the Malays, he would ask me to put up a draft of a Malay speech for him."

Mr Othman said that the people at that time really had confidence in Mr Lee and supported him wholeheartedly and that was the first time that Singapore had a political party with mass support.

Of course, the communists came in, he said.

Citing an example of how visionary Mr Lee was, he said: "The communists then needed a political party with whom they could be attached from behind, but eventually they wanted to take over the party. I think Kuan Yew knew this.

"So when we contested in the election, he allowed them (to come in) because we needed the mass support... The relationship between us (PAP) and the communists carried on until around 1962 when the party had a big split and the communist members and the pro-communist members formed Barisan Sosialis under Dr Lee Siew Choh."

Mr Othman said that when it came to dealing with party business, Mr Lee was always strict. Otherwise, he was a friendly man.

"After the meetings, we would usually go and have coffee and all that and he would be chatting. We did not discuss politics at these coffee breaks. We (would) just chat about anything else.

"Sometimes we would discuss the cheap sales in town. Only (Lim) Kim San used to make jokes. Sometimes they were R-rated jokes. Kuan Yew would just smile."

Mr Lee's wife Kwa Geok Choo also used to attend party meetings.

WIFE'S INFLUENCE

"Whenever he got very fierce at the party meetings, she would say 'Harry, Harry, cool down', and he would. I remember that very clearly," Mr Othman said.

Mrs Lee was his constant companion.

"When he was on his first official visit to Indonesia in 1959, I noticed that every time at dinner, lunch or breakfast, she would pick the food for him. She was very concerned with what he ate. I heard she did that on every trip.

"I think that when she died, he lost a great companion. Very sad," Mr Othman said.

Mrs Lee died in October 2010.

"I remember when I was with the Singapore Tourism Board and when I travelled to other countries to promote Singapore, they would say 'Singapore? Lee Kuan Yew?'

"His name has become synonymous with Singapore. It has become a household word. When you say his name, it's always associated with Singapore.

"I went to Arab countries, I went to England, I went to India, I went to Japan, I went to Korea, of course Malaysia, Thailand, anywhere. You just mention Singapore, they'd know it's Lee Kuan Yew."

Mr Othman said: "To me there is only one Lee Kuan Yew and that was him.

"He was the man who brought this country from Third World to First World and made Singapore known to the whole world."


This article was first published on Mar 26, 2015.
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